Devoted to the power of the written word, one-time literary star Jack Marcus (Owen) is a self-destructive, alcoholic English teacher at a posh country prep school called Croyden. He brashly refers to his students as "droids" and combatively complains about their use of social media and lack of critical skills. Suffering from painful rheumatoid arthritis, icy, Italian-born Dina Delsanto (Binoche) is an accomplished painter and the school's new art instructor; she is passionate about pictures, fervently believing that a pointing can express feelings far deeper than words. They're engaged in a caustic, intellectual argument, started by Jack and escalated by Dina, as to whether words or pictures are more effective. As their droll disagreement becomes a school debate, their barbed flirtation and sexual attraction flourishes.
The problem lies squarely with the formulaic script written by Gerald Di Pego's ("Phenomenon," "Sharky's Machine"). Although witty, it's far too contrived. Veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi ("The Eye of the Storm," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Roxanne") never cuts through the melodramatic verbosity or develops a subplot involving the taunting harassment and outright bullying of Emily (Valerie Tian), a shy Asian art student, by Swint (Adam DiMarco), a clueless male classmate.
With Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, substituting for New England's coastal shoreline, it's interesting to note that the "Dina Delsanto" large-scale, abstract canvases were actually painted by Binoche. And in the scene in which Jack Marcus destroys his living room, the music in the background is David Bowie's "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" from his album "The Next Day." Reportedly, Owen insisted on using this on the soundtrack, rather than the classical music that Schepisi had chosen. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to jettison the scruffy corduroy jackets too.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Words and Pictures" is an erudite if uninspiring 6. Binoche and Owen deserve better.